In response to the ever-changing nature of communication – and after much discussion and input from its members and the members of other communication organizations – the Public Relations Society of America has an updated definition of public relations:
“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t a definition the average PR practitioner can use when talking to a potential client.
The irony of “messaging” professionals being unable to come up with their own singular message isn’t lost on most PR practitioners. In 1982, the last time PRSA updated its definition, we got: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” At the time, I remember one of my fellow PRSA members complaining that he just wanted something to tell people at cocktail parties.
The difficulty with defining public relations is that its practice has many facets. During the course of one week, we may be handling a publicity campaign; doing media training; scheduling speaking engagements; writing brochures, newsletters or website content; implementing a social media program; or handling a crisis. What we do depends on 1) the type of client we represent (or organization we work for); 2) the goal of the PR program; 3) who we are trying to reach, etc. Our “to do” list changes from day to day, and for the most part, the very unpredictability of public relations is what draws certain people to the profession.
Here’s the thing: When people ask us what we do and we say public relations, the initial reaction is often a puzzled look, followed by “but what do you do, exactly?” And the answer to that question will be different for each PR person.